Think of Imagining America's 2013 conference, "A Call to Action," as a tapestry: 350 attendees form the warp; 86 sessions—workshops, story circles, plenaries, conversations, panels, site visits, and more—form the weft. Throughout this complex fabric, a group of participant-observers threaded an experiment. Using our own experiences and reports from session facilitators and volunteer reporters, ten individuals attempted to capture the spirit of the conference, to corral emergent themes into manageable shape, to identify actions as they were manifesting, and to use two afternoon plenaries to engage participants in reflecting on the conference even as it was being woven.
Our aims were to capture, understand, and analyze the essence of this gathering for use both by IA and individual participants. If attendees were being called to action by the conference theme, what aided or impeded that? What actions were envisioned? How did it alter the conference's usual exchange around public scholarship and creative practice? What did it all mean to IA's project of transforming higher education to revive democracy? This article describes our process and results, considers their meanings, and suggests further ways to experiment in deepening engagement in future conferences.
Two months before the conference, I was contacted by members of IA's National Advisory Board (NAB) and staff. Big questions were being asked in many ways, in many venues. What is the state of discourse among engaged scholars and their allies? How is higher education implicated in our damaged democracy and how can it help to repair the damage? What opportunities for action—necessary research, publications and other forms of communication, interventions in structures and content of higher education, working relationships with allies and partners—were ripening as the conference approached? They needed help gathering and infusing the conference with answers. I signed on.
I'm a writer, speaker, activist, and consultant focusing on culture and politics. One of my specialties is designing and implementing participatory processes. NAB member Dudley Cocke, artistic director of Roadside Theater and interim director of Appalshop, IA Communications Manager (now Assistant Director) Jamie Haft, and I began planning. We needed a way to gather information, a team to review that information, confer, and plan, and a format to engage conference attendees at two one-hour-long plenaries. We talked through possibilities and settled on a plan:
The Team: IA would invite a group of educators, graduate students, community activists, and administrators to serve as the core team that I would lead. In addition to Jamie and Dudley, they included:
|NAB Chair Bruce Burgett, dean and professor, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington Bothell;|
|Fluney Hutchinson, associate professor of economics, Lafayette College, Easton, PA;|
|Megan Granda, executive director, Duke University's Center for Civic Engagement, Durham, NC;|
|Lynnette Overby, professor and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning, University of Delaware in Newark;|
|Patrice Reyes, PhD candidate in American history, Drew University, Madison, NJ, and 2013–2014 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow;|
|Anne Rhodes, theater artist, writer, teaching artist, and community activist, Ithaca, NY; and|
|jesikah maria ross, documentary artist who formerly directed the Art of Regional Change program at the University of California, Davis.|
Team members communicated extensively via email, meeting twice face-to-face for two-hour sessions at the conference. Following the conference, I interviewed all team members except Fluney and Patrice, who did not have time to participate. This article quotes from those interviews.
Volunteer Listener-Reporters: We invited all attendees to serve as volunteer listener-reporters for at least one session. I presented the plan in person to both PAGE Fellows and NAB members the day before the conference began, encouraging them to take part.
The Questions: Jamie, Dudley, and I agreed that capturing actions wasn't enough. We also needed to learn about the texture of conference sessions. Someone called them "the rubs": divergences, disagreements, open questions, and points of consensus. We asked session facilitators to reserve time at the end in order to ask participants two questions germane to IA's mission.
With respect to what promises to be most valuable in advancing the aim of transforming higher education in service to the revival of democracy in the larger society, using the arts, design, and humanities as change agents:
What individual, group, and collective actions did participants agree to take? What support do these actions require from IA and from participants' home institutions and organizations?
And we asked volunteer listener-reporters to respond to this question:
What were the session's disagreements and agreements, opportunities and barriers, inspiring insights, and actions?
To clarify these intentions and processes, in mid-September IA invited session leaders to a webinar co-facilitated by IA Associate Director Kevin Bott and me. Afterwards, the webinar video was made available via IA's website.
The Surveys: Dudley, Jamie, and I sought the most efficient way to share conference presenters' and participants' responses with the team. While not ideal, the only feasible method of registering a large amount of data seemed to be online. Using IA's Formstack account, Jamie created two simple online surveys:
|The Conference Expectations Form, to be completed by session facilitators, asked them to "Share any anticipated actions related to your conference session and, if relevant, pathway." Fifty-six were submitted.|
|The Conference Documentation Form was available to both facilitators and volunteer listener-reporters. Forty-nine were submitted, 24 by facilitators and 25 by volunteers.|
This was a significantly lower level of reporting than we'd hoped. Only a handful of reports were completed in time for the final plenary (though much of the information will be useful to IA now). The largest number of actions emerging from sessions involved IA directly. Groups frequently requested a special issue or section in IA's journal, Public, a slot at the next conference, or help convening interested members between conferences.
Within the team, there was consensus that requesting information via an online survey had been asking too much. As Lynnette pointed out, it's an add-on to a very busy conference: "You are asking people to give up their ability to really involve themselves in the program or presentation if you're asking them to work and do a lot of note-taking." Anne observed that participants may not have understood the surveys' purpose: "If the staff and the Board were clear about what they wanted to learn from the conference, that would guide the gathering of information and presentations at the plenaries. But I didn't feel that." Bruce pointed out that the conference is "by its nature an immersive experience and that's good for people. Reporting on the session draws them out of the experience."
Team meetings to plan the plenaries were spirited. We had a brief time each day to share and analyze what we had learned and to use that knowledge to construct the plenaries. In addition to survey responses, we mined team members' experiences and conversations with other participants for relevant information. The mostly positive response to this process was articulated by jesikah maria ross: "Each day there was a committed group of people who sat together in a pretty intense moment to try and figure out the best way—given what we had—to engage people at the plenaries, which I thought was a tall order. Given the time we had and the resources we had, which were largely each other, I think that we did well."
Saturday: Saturday afternoon's plenary was organized around four themes that the team extracted from the proceedings up to that point. After the presentations, plenary participants were invited to comment and add their own observations.
Tools & Resources:
|How to know who has information, methods, advice and how to access it|
|How the network can share information and resources|
|FAQs that offer clarity on IA's working definitions and ways of working|
|Orientation to newcomers, especially before conferences|
|The power of art in social change|
|The power of storytelling in strengthening democracy|
|Understanding and addressing power and power dynamics in higher ed|
|IA's constituency: who are we? Can everyone fully participate? How do we relate to other organizations and democratic organizing?|
|What forms of engagement encourage reflection and connection|
|Other ways to build a conference that would promote slowing down, working together|
|Ways to equalize age, power, and other differentials in engagement|
|Ways to use arts skills to animate, engage, connect—in-person and online|
Overcoming Isolation: How to support people in taking courageous action and building a movement?
|A "buddy" system|
|"Circuit riders" moving from place to place, providing support, spreading information and ideas|
|Regional meetings: small-scale, topical, connective tissue|
|Google hangouts: face-to-face topical or regional conversations at a distance|
|Online advice exchanges: pose a question, collect answers|
|Fellowships to visit and work with another faculty member|
A notably diverse range of speakers, long-time IA members and newcomers alike, shared their thoughts and feelings.
An undergraduate read a poem she'd just composed, a community activist talked about the stretch entailed in paying her own way to the conference. As Anne commented, "The plenaries and maybe the ending of some of the workshops were the only places where we came together as a learning community, so I think it was very useful. Things the people came to the microphone to share were very meaningful and people felt welcomed by the culture that had been created. They had a place they could say what they needed to say and someone was listening."
Sunday: The closing plenary was shaped in response to a felt and reported need for a "we" feeling, a sense of belonging and commonality. The conference program had been packed with as many as 17 concurrent sessions spread over several different venues. Individuals were free to carve a path through the conference based on their interests and proclivities, but one result was that significant numbers of attendees never met, indeed never found themselves in the same space at the same time. For some people, that added up to a delicious variety and choice, for others, a nagging feeling of disconnection. We therefore brought the conference to a close with a program that engaged people on multiple levels: interaction, emotion as well as intellect, and shared experience.
We were aided in this effort by the size and enthusiasm of the group. As Bruce noted, "It's amazing how many people were at that last plenary. It was packed. Conferences tend to peter out, but I felt like this one really ended well in that way."
The program began with a guided visualization I led, connecting participants in a chain of being to those past figures who'd inspired and taught them, and to future generations, to the students of their students. The visualization resonated with Oren Lyons' contribution to the conference keynote in which he'd spoken of our connection to seven generations: the current one, three in the past, and three in the future.
We sang "Happy Birthday" to PAGE on the occasion of the program's tenth anniversary; watched several media clips presented by Holly Zahn, IA's Media and Special Projects Director, and created during the conference by students sponsored to participate by the Joy of Giving Something, Inc.; and reviewed three overarching priorities that had emerged from the conference:
Clarifying IA internally:
|Who we are and who is included|
|How to facilitate wider inclusion|
|How to address power dynamics within the consortium and in conferences|
Transforming higher education:
|How a democratic revival in community permeates higher ed (and vice versa)|
|How to make change more effective and rewarding|
|How to reduce the isolation of those working for change|
Telling the story:
|How to tell the story of IA more effectively internally|
|How to tell the story of what IA is trying to accomplish and support more effectively|
This was followed by an exercise devised by Bruce Burgett, "The Four Ws'," in which participants were given a few minutes each to write responses to four questions:
Not everyone chose to share his or her notes, but responses were wide-ranging, such as replies to "what if?" including: "We could survive climate change," "I were tenured and could do the work I want to do," and "We spent less time feeling defensive/inadequate and more time bridge-building."
Next, IA co-directors Tim Eatman and Scott Peters used the Four Ws' frame to offer participants a glimpse of their hopes and concerns. This was warmly welcomed, as team members anticipated it would be—several felt that conferees wanted to hear more from IA leaders. Jamie said, "The plenaries would have benefited from conference organizers explaining their thinking behind the 'Call to Action' theme and where the disagreements internally have been about having IA emphasize organizing and action research." Dudley said, "It was good that Tim and Scott appeared at the end. I wish they had been featured sometime near the beginning as well. We want to hear our leaders passionately express themselves. We want to know who we're collaborating with."
Kevin Bott then provided a rousing reprise of his character Reverend Ebenezer Abernathy from the Friday evening D.R.E.A.M. Freedom Revival performance. Ebenezer enlisted the crowd in closing the time portal through which his cohort of revivalists had journeyed from the past to 2013 Syracuse, and anticipated opening it again for the 2014 IA conference in Atlanta.
Musician Larry Long finished the session with a song.
Looking back on the process, I am impressed with the seriousness and intentionality of the team. People put remarkably concentrated effort into what jesikah called having a unifying experience for our field. "If we want to truly build our field, we have to build our cohort and to do that, we have to create a shared experience that's more than just being in the same hotel and convention center. We have to create this interactive, responsive, live experience. To me, that's brilliant. It bears taking the time to think about how we might do it again to make it be more effective."
Conversing with team members following the conference, four themes emerged in making sense of what we had learned. All had something in common: people saw our experiment as revealing important aspects of IA's development, so their responses tended to be systemic rather than simple tweaks to the process.
Clarity in a Time of Transition
The need to tell IA's story—both to portray the organization's work and the ideas that animate it—emerged during the plenaries as a strong priority. IA sponsors and coordinates many activities (such as the Full Participation action research initiative and the PAGE Fellows program). But as Jamie told me, speaking of a postcard listing IA initiatives that she developed and distributed at the conference, "The postcard has no narrative about who we are and what we're working on. It's a list of exciting initiatives under the umbrella of IA. We've not yet been ready to say 'Imagining America is about changing these three things.' The development of an IA Theory of Change is trying to move us in that direction." She wondered if "the conference is a general assembly, the place where we collectively identify the most promising pressure points to support institutional transformation. Or maybe that needs to come out of the Board, as a representative group of IA members and allies. Maybe the Board needs to present their analysis at the conference and propose IA actions for the year ahead."
Openness to multiplicity has supported people in taking initiative within IA on issues that matter most to them. But it has left some key questions contested. One goes to core purpose, as Anne summarized:
There was a major confusion in the notes that we received: are we trying to take action in communities or in our institutions of higher learning? What is the real point of Imagining America? The people who are engaged in the projects, their total focus is on community, connecting in community, making wonderful things happen in community. But the leadership of IA seems to be quite clear that the point is transforming institutions of higher learning, and that the work in the community is the strategy for making change in universities and colleges. I don't think that the folks at the conference were clear about that distinction, so what it is they are being called to take action toward? It's like there are two big objectives and people aren't sure which one is primary.
This relates directly to questions of inclusion, which were also very alive at the conference. How do community activists outside the academy relate? What about undergraduates? Like most team members, Bruce saw clear limits on capacity, which haven't always been fully reflected in IA's public story:
I don't think we have the capacity to run a come-one-come-all conference for any organization outside of higher ed interested in social change. We're an organization for social change in relation to higher ed. We can be a really interesting site for any organization that wants to work with higher ed. If we're on the inside and we can explain how it works, we can be allies. That's why we're starting to work with the Federation of State Humanities Councils; that's a really obvious bridge that's not well constructed right now. If their program officers come to IA, they're going to find peers and colleagues, including all the people running partnership centers in universities. But I think bringing in someone from a small grassroots organization working on social justice who doesn't really want to engage much with higher ed is risky. We should be allies, and we may be locally, but you can predict what their response is going to be to this kind of national gathering.
In part, the call for definition may reveal a difference between the conference and IA as a whole. As Lynnette pointed out,
Action didn't seem to be the main focus to me. I know conferences struggle with this, this is always an issue: is this just a professional development opportunity or is there something specific that should come out of this? And how can we help this to occur? But I'm assuming that most of the members are from universities, and that's what university people do: they go to conferences so that they can use this information as a way of demonstrating that they're sharing their discipline or gaining knowledge, and that helps them when they go back to the university in terms of promotion, tenure, merit.
Whereas Dudley, framing the conference in terms of IA's larger purpose, articulated an aim that he feels ought to inform its conferences: "It is not about the transformation of communities per se, but rather the focus is on how the arts, humanities, and design can help higher education transform itself so that it can be a positive force in the strengthening of democracy in this country. So the rubric of a call to action seems to me to be the right call and I'm hoping that the next conference will be a call to action, and the conference after that, and the conference after that."
As jesikah and others noted, IA is in the midst of a transition from an organization providing services to one with an organizing mission. She didn't perceive the conference as fully embodying a call to action yet, but as reflecting something in process:
A call to action is a worthy framework; I think maybe the expectations were high to get there so quickly. If we really wanted it to come out with this call for action, there's a different set of activities that would lead there. You'd be doing these breakout groups and you'd work on a particular organizing strategy over half a day and your group would put forward key manifesto items and key calls for action and then that would go to a next step and be vetted and go to a next step. There are processes people use to come out with a concrete series of actions that are then adopted by the larger body to move forward. Our conference wasn't set up for that.w
In 2013, to consciously use community organizing practice and language when our own president of the country is continually vilified for doing that, is a really bold thing to do. I think that boldness is inspiring and can be motivating. I don't know that the audience targeted has had enough time building shared experiences and agreements to take that up. With the exception of the day of site visits, which is fantastic and marks IA as completely unconventional and different, it has had the feel of other professional/academic conferences. And so to go from that which people are probably used to for the past 15 years to all of a sudden this call for action, that's a really big jump. I think that this conference is a stepping-stone to go there.
The process of articulation and clarification as this transition proceeds was seen as a core need, one that would inform conference planning in many ways.
An Arc, Not A Moment
It was a point of consensus that any participatory process of session reporting and plenary planning needed to be clearly introduced, as Lynnette put it: "Let people know right at the beginning when they register. . . . that this is one of their responsibilities. This affects how they plan. But if it's added on, it seems more optional. If we want this to be more systematic, then it needs to be communicated in that way from the beginning."
Megan and others felt that appointing trained facilitators to assist in developing and implementing actions is necessary.
We could have at each of these sessions a trained person who is actually a facilitator who works beforehand with the presenters and then summarizes and moderates the session and helps the group figure out how to take next steps, so that there's a little more guidance for people in how to make that transition from an academic conference to a call to action. Maybe have the PAGE Fellows be trained as facilitators and move the action; that would be great. Do a small grant or get some award or recognition and they administer the next steps of the group. How are we going to create sustainability for this conversation?
Beyond that, people felt that participatory process should be an ongoing practice, with the conference as merely one manifestation. Jamie wondered, for instance, if the many people working throughout the year as IA project partners would have taken a bigger part in developing the conference process if there had been more of an effort to involve them:
Generally, we're lacking a hardy structure to support members' and partners' strategies to transform their institutions. And, it's on us as the conference organizers that we didn't get enough buy-in about the theme "A Call to Action." We weren't clear about what we meant by action. For example, we did not mean action in the sense of activism that's devoid of analysis and reflection. We also didn't get enough buy-in from the circle of longtime collaborators on research initiatives and artistic projects that IA has sponsored and those that are ongoing. These leaders put together themed pathways of multiple sessions at the conference, but I don't think they felt like they "owned" the conference process. That could explain why we're missing some of their voices in the surveys.
In part it's a capacity issue. It takes a lot to do a research initiative, and because many of these initiatives are purposefully decentralized—we're trying to encourage distributive leadership, we're not running these projects out of the office—they've got their hands full doing this ongoing work. But it's not clear, structurally, how all the work comes back into headquarters for support and then back out. We're trying to build a movement with distributive leadership, but it's difficult to coordinate and to co-create the agenda.
"We need infrastructure to bring us together beforehand and pull us together afterwards, so that it's not just dropped when we get on the plane till next year when we get back on the plane," Megan told me. "Think of the conference as a retreat with follow-up work continuing through the whole year. I would think the Board feels that way because they are working all year, but how can all the membership?"
Given the strong response at this conference to story circle-based sessions on race, place, and class and on the economy, Dudley felt reinforced in his conviction that capturing textured first-person narratives is a strong way to ground action. He foresaw an arc of pre- and post-conference involvement building that in:
The stories in the "What's Up with the Economy" session were very powerful and emotional. Many people were in tears and it was very frank. But how do you move from testifying into the analysis and then into the action? It isn't going to happen in a two- or three-hour session. There has to be an arc on the key themes. I'd say the economy is one: What's up with the economy? How does higher education implicate itself in the current economy? What is the role of the academy in fostering this current situation where so few have almost all the resources? It's about implicating ourselves in the problem, and that's what our focus has got to be as IA. I know there are potentially a million tracks at a conference, but there are not a million major themes. Maybe we should just say for the next conference there are these major themes—power is one, the economy is one, and two or three others. These themes could be part of the analysis for each session's particular topic.
Suppose we set up some story circles as part of the development of a question around a major theme. You could do it virtually, just like you do it live. You could have seven people, so there's an order, and we each write in or record our story and send it in. From that, our little pod could then spend some time Skyping for an hour and a half about what did we learn from these stories, then how might we shape this session at the IA conference? Say there are four other groups of seven doing it, so five people, one representing each group, then shape the session based on all of these resources. Then you've got the stories as a basis, anybody attending the session has access to all that material, and we've got an analysis and particular actions to debate for two or three hours at the conference.
The value of face-to-face dialogue was reflected in what might be considered the unintended positive consequences of our core team. Reflecting on her experience, jesikah explained:
As a by-product of being asked to be on the core team, I ended up being much more attentive throughout the conference, so it actually changed my way of experiencing it. You see this with people all the time. If you give them a responsibility it shifts how they are in that situation. I talked to and met more people, I observed, reported back, and thought, 'Wow! How you could do this across a whole community?' I got something most people go to conferences for: I got to network, to know people better, and they got to know me well, and I got to learn from them by doing a project. One of my takeaways is that this is also a great idea for field-building.
The plan we developed relied on improvisation. Team members rose to the occasion, moving from raw input to plenary design in a very short time. All those I interviewed liked keeping plenary time unstructured beforehand, responding to the moment, but for some, the risk loomed large. "I love the idea," Megan told me. "It's really important and lovely, but with a conference of that size, it's quite an undertaking. There needs hand-holding to have it be effective."
"I think it's an awesome idea," jesikah told me. "I'm not quite convinced that it's manageable, especially two days in a row. But it differentiates us from other conferences. It demonstrates ways in which we try and walk our talk by active listening, being flexible, collaborating, working with what we have. It makes it much more exciting and alive."
For Dudley, the unknown was exciting.
I came away thinking that in some way it's useful to think of conferences as "happenings," that we're all going to be in this place at this time and in many ways we don't know what's going to happen. I liked the idea of people sitting together and trying to figure out what has just gone on. You could have designated some floaters, some people who went in to listen to what we guessed might be some critical sessions—sort of what's popping? Then it becomes a question of how you translate what we've sifted. There are all kinds of interesting ways to present it. I thought those clowns [at a different plenary] were funny and that they captured something.
Our whole presentation back can be in multiple forms and very engaging. I came to think of our group as the dramaturges and the scripters, the director and producer of some event that is then going to be at the plenary, for the whole. It's a little bit like making a play over several days.
Dudley is spot on. There have to be unexpected things that happen in those plenaries, like the political clowning. That was really fun. It woke people up. Having Kevin close and open the portal was fun; it gives people energy leaving. I think it's worth doing. We should experiment with different dialogue practices while we do that. I thought this conference was an advance over our attempts previously to open those spaces. For me, the real evidence of its success is the audience at the last session. They were engaged enough in that level of reflection to come to it, which felt impressive. That was a success and we can build on it.
Certain themes arose repeatedly. "Inclusion" was popular, but if we created a conference word-cloud, my guess is that "power" would be the largest word. People brought up questions of their own power to shape or even influence their programs, departments, or institutions. Power differentials—between students and faculty, faculty and administrators, Research 1 institutions, smaller universities, and community colleges—were frequently noted. Unhappiness was expressed that while a Presidents Forum took place within the compass of the conference, other participants had no sense of that conversation.
Bruce delineated the underlying issue of transparency:
People were saying, why are the presidents meeting alone together? Well, it would have been nice to report what came out of that meeting, but there's a reason for that. They're peers and they recognize that if they want to be in useful conversation they better talk to each other, build a kind of network that can support them. But I also agree that building the channels for that conversation to come back to the whole would be very helpful.
The question came down to this: How can IA support conversations about challenging and important issues in a way that enables participation within an inclusive container?
Based on this experience, I offer six suggestions to IA leadership for deepening participants' engagement in co-creating the conference and aligning with the organization's emerging change agenda.
Schedule fewer concurrent sessions (but even if there continue to be as many as 17 at a time, as in 2013, that is a manageable-sized facilitator cohort). Providing facilitation training and other incentives to PAGE Fellows was another good suggestion.
Experiment with ways of uncovering themes and actions using arts modalities. Bruce suggested a Forum Theatre on power. Dudley suggested clowning as a kind of sacred fools' metacommentary on the action. I recommend using the story circle process described above to devise one or two staged readings on key themes, followed by highly participatory discussions; and either still photography with captioning or brief video interviews to collect stories and commentary to be edited together and shared during strategic points in the conference. An organization that believes in the power of culture should make maximum use of participatory arts modes to surface and explore issues.
IA works in a field where judgments of value carry tremendous weight. People's futures can depend on whether they are judged to excel by standards they may not endorse. Scholars who are deemed controversial on account of their politics or critiques of the educational system can feel insecure. Engaged scholars may simultaneously work for transformation in the structures and systems of higher education and seek approval and support within those same systems. This is a tough dialectic.
An arena in which free experimentation is encouraged and permission is granted to make fruitful mistakes could help. In crafting processes that reflect the liberatory and engaged values IA espouses, "what if?" describes a spirit of perpetual inquiry rather than a question to be answered and put to bed. Whatever is planned for next year's conference, I encourage IA's leaders to do it in that spirit.